Time and extinction drive Bolinas sculpture

02/02/2012

In 1989, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill killed hundreds of thousands of animals and wrought havoc on 1,300 miles of pristine Prince William Sound coastline, sculptor Ron Garrigues was compelled to change course. Instead of continuing his series of Earth Mother pieces—rounded, abstract depictions of the large-breasted goddess of creation—Garrigues needed something darker. He wanted to acutely communicate what he saw as man’s reckless and perverse annihilation of the earth.

Garrigues settled on the image of a skull. And, inspired by wrenching pictures of oil-covered Alaska shorebirds and the mythology of Pacific Northwest American Indians, a raven. The resultant sculpture, “Raven—Oil Spill Sacrifice,” was a stark rendering of a prominent beak extending from two large, empty cranial lobes. The piece was the first of what would become a series of 70 animal and human skull depictions, a compilation the prolific Bolinas artist now calls the centerpiece of his life’s work.

A selection of 33 sculptures from that series, “The Man and the Beast,” along with an equal number of two-dimensional pieces from a pair of more recent collections, “The Big Bang: Somewhere East of Nowhere” and “Next One Billion Humans 2025 A.D.,” will be presented by Varnish Fine Art in San Francisco in late February.

Taken collectively, the series portray nothing less than the entire spectrum of humanity’s place in the universe, encompassing the artist’s imaginings of both the beginning of time (“The Big Bang” series, black and white etchings on clayboard) and, through the metaphor of sperm racing towards an egg, the ongoing population explosion he sees as the harbinger of an inevitable human extinction (“Next One Billion,” Sumi ink drawings on
paper). 

The latter series, with their gravity of subject and originality of medium—the ink drawings, on Chinese silk scroll, evoke East Asian calligraphy—are compelling, but it is the skulls that carry the most immediate emotional resonance. The razor-sharp juxtaposition of pieces like “Fossil Fuel Man,” in which an enormous black oil drop sits atop a bare human skull, conveys a perspective that is both detached and haunting—and communicates, powerfully and viscerally, the artist’s portentous message of mankind’s destructive path.

After Garrigues created his first sculpture more than 50 years ago on a kitchen table, “with a steak knife and a piece of sandpaper,” his path to prominence was relatively streamlined. He began studying sculpture under the tutelage of established artist Richard Whalen while still working fulltime for his father’s thriving coffee-industry business, rushing to sculpting sessions with Whalen without pausing even to change from his three-piece business suit. Within a year of creating his first sculpture, a bird in flight, Garrigues was offered a show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

Long friends with legendary Bay Area painters like Nathan Oliveira and Joan Brown, the San Francisco native quickly developed a strong reputation of his own, enjoying commercial and critical success at museum and gallery exhibits in California and New York. At a foundry started by iconic sculptor Peter Volkous, Garrigues dived into metal, never blinking an eye in the company of the notorious wild-man Volkous.

“He was really crazy,” Garrigues says. “He worked at night. We were casting in shorts and tennis shoes—there’s bronze flying all over the place. And we never got hurt. I mean it was crazy.”

When Garrigues’ father had a heart attack, the artist rejoined the family business for a time, while maintaining a studio underneath his office. And when the elder Garrigues’ heart failed a second time, the young father—Garrigues has three children, two from his first marriage—took over the company. His art career would have to wait. 

“I took about a 27-year hiatus from art,” he says. “For almost 30 years I didn’t show anywhere. I made sculptures. I mean, I did stuff—I was always doing stuff for myself—but I wasn’t showing anywhere. And I couldn’t take an obligation to put together a show.”

When Garrigues, now 81, opened the door to the expansive Bolinas home he shares with his wife, María, one recent afternoon, he looked comfortable in several layers of sweaters and plush brown boots. He’s tall—at least 6’3, although he says he’s lost several inches over the years—and noticeably thin. His thick white beard is trimmed below the jaw, and when he speaks his voice is low and coarse. Despite having contracted emphysema, Garrigues appears somewhat younger and more vibrant than his years would suggest, an impression possibly enhanced by his habit of coloring his speech with the occasional four-letter word. “The façade looks good,” Garrigues joked about his appearance. “It’s the plumbing [that’s the problem].”

Displayed throughout the home’s stylish living room are numerous sculptures and paintings, only a minority done by Garrigues. He has been particularly influenced by Tibetan art, he said, having developed an affinity over multiple hiking trips in the Himalayas. “Those are made for God,” Garrigues explained. “They’re not signed. They’re just, you know, they’re done for belief.”

When he turned towards a darker subject matter, Garrigues knew he would have a harder time selling his work. Some of the pieces are visually shocking—in one the skull of a Pope gives birth to a baby—but as much as anything it’s the image of the skull itself consumers are uncomfortable with, Garrigues said. 

“Very few people want to have skulls anywhere,” he said. “It reminds them they’re going to die. They just don’t want to know.”

In the studio adjacent to the artist’s house, several bronze sculptures lie neatly on benches. The room’s white walls are covered with prints, including several from the Big Bang series in one corner. The skulls took Garrigues over a decade to complete; it’s only been over the last several years that he conceived of and completed the other two series featured in the exhibit. He says he switched mediums because his body could no longer handle working with the bulky sculptures, but also because the series served its purpose. Garrigues said what he wanted to say; the anger that initially inspired the series has dissipated.

“I got it out of my system,” Garrigues says. “I‘m not pissed off anymore. I’m just really satisfied that the earth will always exist with us or without us.”

When he speaks, Garrigues sounds content. As he discusses human evolution and what he sees as the inevitability of man-caused catastrophe, he seems to acknowledge his own small role in the universe—indeed the smallness of all humanity.

“Essentially I believe that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction, and that we have to go and will go,” Garrigues says. “We have to go. We’re the greatest predator that ever strode the earth. We’ve taken everything we can out of everywhere and occupied every niche.”

Not that Garrigues has stopped caring. Sitting in a chair in his living room, he switched on the table lamp to read the opening remarks of the book corresponding to “The Man and the Beast.”

“Having travelled on foot for the past quarter century in the great mountain ranges and rain forests of the world, I am an appalled witness to the rampant destruction wrought by man’s presence on our fragile planet,” Garrigues began, the passion palpable in his voice. “No one with eyes can miss it, yet it continues unabated and accelerated. It is denied, dismissed or simply excused by most of Earth’s six billion humans.

“Since 1990, I have turned to the stark metaphor of the skull, animal and human. The skull both attracts and repels. There is a beauty in the skull but it implies foreboding. The skull is a signpost on the road we travel.”